How to Become an Occupational Therapy Assistant: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Become an Occupational Therapy Assistant: A Step-by-Step Guide

Becoming an Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA/COTA)

If you have a passion for helping people and are interested in a healthcare career that allows you to make a meaningful impact without requiring years of schooling, becoming an Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) could be the perfect fit for you. 

Occupational Therapy Assistants work closely with Occupational Therapists to provide holistic care that helps people of all ages and backgrounds regain or improve their abilities to accomplish daily activities, live more independently, and enjoy a better quality of life. This guide aims to provide you with a roadmap to becoming an OTA, covering educational pathways, licensing requirements, job market prospects, and much more.

Educational Requirements

High School Diploma or GED: The Starting Point

Your journey towards becoming an OTA begins with completing high school or obtaining a GED. A strong foundation in science and health-related courses such as biology, chemistry, psychology, and even physical education can provide you with a head start in understanding the human body and mind. These subjects will serve as a helpful backdrop for your future education and training.

Associate’s Degree: The Cornerstone of Your OTA Career

Most OTAs hold an associate degree as an occupational therapy assistant from an accredited educational institution. These two-year programs combine academic coursework with hands-on clinical experiences to prepare you for real-world practice. You’ll cover subjects ranging from anatomy and physiology to behavioral sciences, as well as learn different therapeutic techniques specific to the OTA profession.

Optional Advanced Coursework

While your associate degree will equip you with the necessary skills and knowledge, some individuals opt to take additional courses in related fields like kinesiology, psychology, and even specialized areas such as pediatric or geriatric care. Though not mandatory, this extra coursework can distinguish you in a competitive job market and provide you with deeper expertise. There are also currently 20 programs that offer a bachelor’s degree to become an occupational therapy assistant.

Licensing and Certification

Preparing for the Certification Exam

The next milestone after graduating from an accredited OTA program is obtaining certification. The National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) administers the certification exam that you’ll need to pass to become a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA). Preparation is key here—many people invest in review courses, study groups, and practice exams to increase their chances of success.

Navigating State Licensing Requirements

Once you’ve passed the NBCOT exam, the next step is getting licensed in your state. Each state has its own set of licensing criteria, which usually involves submitting proof of your educational qualifications, passing the NBCOT exam, and undergoing a background check. Some states might also require additional steps like interviews or jurisprudence exams. It’s important to thoroughly research the specific licensing requirements for the state where you intend to practice.

Keeping Your Credentials Updated

Being an OTA isn’t a one-and-done learning experience. You’ll need to maintain your certification and licensure by earning continuing education units (CEUs). Each state has its own criteria for how many CEUs are needed to renew your license, which usually occurs every one to three years. You will also need to stay updated with your NBCOT credential, which is typically renewed every three years. Staying updated with current best practices in occupational therapy is crucial for long-term career success.

Work Experience and Internships as a COTA

The Value of Hands-On Training

Clinical experience is an indispensable part of your OTA training. All accredited programs integrate fieldwork into their curriculum, allowing you to apply what you’ve learned in the classroom to real-world healthcare settings. This practical experience often makes a significant difference when it comes to job placements and career advancements.


Rotations are coordinated through your educational institution. Most OTA programs (regardless of whether being an associate or a bachelor’s degree program) will have multiple one-week rotations and two 8–9-week rotations to allow for hands-on learning.

The Ripple Effect on Your Career

Having a broad range of clinical experiences can open up numerous career paths. Whether you’re interested in working in a school, a senior care facility, or a specialized rehabilitation center, rotations provide a valuable opportunity to test the waters and discover which settings you find most fulfilling.

Salary Expectations

What to Expect as an Entry Level Occupational Therapy Assistant

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for an entry-level OTA is around $50,000 to $65,000 per year. However, various factors like geographic location, facility type, and even your level of specialization can affect your earnings. For instance, OTAs in urban settings typically earn more than those in rural areas.

Experienced OTA Salary Projections

As you gain more experience and perhaps even specialized certifications, your earning potential increases. Experienced OTAs can earn upwards of $80,000 annually, particularly if they move into managerial roles or start their own practices.

Job Market Outlook

The Current Occupational Therapy Assistant Job Market Landscape

The healthcare industry is experiencing significant growth, and the demand for OTAs is no exception. With an increasingly aging population and growing awareness of the importance of rehabilitative care, the need for occupational therapy services is on the rise.

Projected Growth and Opportunities for OTAs

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for OTAs is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations over the next decade. This growth offers many opportunities in various settings such as schools, hospitals, outpatient clinics, and even home healthcare services.

Niche Markets and Specializations

Emerging fields within occupational therapy, such as telehealth services, present additional avenues for OTAs. If you have a passion for a particular area, such as pediatrics or mental health, specialized certifications can help you stand out and secure positions in these niche markets.

Essential Skills

Communication: The Bedrock of Patient Care

Good communication skills are essential for any healthcare professional. As an OTA, you’ll need to effectively convey treatment plans, coordinate with occupational therapists, and educate families.

Empathy and Compassion: Human Touch in Healthcare

Patients are often dealing with challenging life circumstances. A compassionate and empathetic approach can make a world of difference in their treatment outcomes.

Technical Expertise: More Than Just Hands On Care

While hands-on skills are a given, you’ll also need to be comfortable using healthcare software for patient recordkeeping and possibly even virtual therapy sessions.

Attention to Detail: Where Small Things Matter

Precise documentation, careful observation, and strict adherence to treatment protocols are critical in occupational therapy. Your attention to detail could directly affect a patient’s treatment outcomes.

Tips for Success

Networking and Professional Development

Consider joining professional organizations like the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). These platforms offer excellent opportunities for networking, mentorship, and career development.

Pursuing Additional Certifications

Advanced certifications in fields like hand therapy, geriatrics, or school-based therapy can make you a more attractive job candidate and may lead to higher-paying positions. Many COTAs will pursue one of the top certifications and specializations for occupational therapy assistants in order to advance their careers and increase their earning potential.

Staying Updated: The Learning Never Stops

Regularly read industry publications, attend workshops, and seek out other avenues for continuing education to keep your skills and knowledge current.


How Long Will It Take to Become an OTA?

Generally, it takes about two years to complete an associate degree to become an occupational therapy assistant. This will be different if you pursue a bachelor’s degree, which will be an additional one to two years. You then need to pass the NBCOT board exam and become licensed in your state.

Can I Transition from OTA to Occupational Therapist?

Absolutely. Many OTAs opt to continue their education and become occupational therapists. This usually involves additional years of schooling, clinical experience, and passing a separate certification exam.

What Are Typical OTA Responsibilities?

Day-to-day responsibilities may include assisting with evaluations, implementing treatment plans under the supervision of an occupational therapist, and documenting patient progress. A key difference between an OT and OTA is evaluation and discharge planning, which only an OT may complete.

Additional Resources

Websites and Online Platforms

 [American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)](

 [National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT)](

Recommended Books and Journals

 “Introduction to Occupational Therapy” by Jane Clifford O’Brien

 “Occupational Therapy Assistant Exam Review Guide” by Carrie Kramer

Final Thoughts

Choosing a career as an Occupational Therapy Assistant offers you a chance to make a meaningful impact on people’s lives. With a reasonable educational commitment, promising job prospects, and the opportunity for continuous learning and specialization, becoming an OTA offers a fulfilling and stable career path in healthcare.